Reconciling Institutional Success with Audience Engagement

In today’s global marketplace, arts organizations of all types are vying for the attention of an increasingly busy clientele. Contemporary audiences have less time to attend more functions and events than ever before, and potential concertgoers are always on the lookout for experiences that are unique and valuable, on their own terms.  In order to confront this dilemma, orchestras, opera companies, and other arts institutions, including theater companies are redefining their role as intermediaries in the performance process. Indeed, incorporating the artistic voices of audience members through participatory behavior has become a principal operating mechanism for many organizations.

I’ve recently spent some time trying to come up with a conceptual framework that helps us understand how arts organizations can engage potential audience members by reconciling traditional institutional practices with the blurring of professional and amateur performance culture (i.e. the Pro-Am Revolution). Arts organizations of all types have experienced a shift in the way young audiences associate with art, as they move beyond simple interaction by helping to imagine, plan, execute, and evaluate artistic events as equal stakeholders. Although much of my own work has taken place in the context of the orchestra world, it seems to me that theater is uniquely situated to foster lasting relationships with new audiences. Many of the characteristics inherent in theater: including drama, tension and resolution, and communication?make it an especially effective medium for impacting and inspiring audiences?especially new, young audiences.

Case in point: in my recent work with the University Musical Society (UMS) a major arts presenter in Ann Arbor, MI, I oversaw a study questioning how organizations might create innovative participatory experiences for the next generation of artists and audiences. The result: a new series that has UMS working with professional actors, student leaders, and a major business school to introduce non-arts students to various facets of artistic creativity through a theater skills workshop. The reception has been almost universally positive, with students and faculty alike praising the applicability of theater techniques to life off the stage.

So what do you all think?  What do non-artists (if there is such a thing) have to learn from us, and what might we learn from them in return? Does such an exchange hold value for audiences and arts institutions alike?

Michael Mauskapf is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the University of Michigan, where his work investigates the intersections between musical and organizational practices in America. He has presented his work at conference in the U.S. and abroad, and his research has been published in various journals and books, including 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. He is currently managing partner of Symphony Bros., LLC, a consultancy that helps artists and arts organizations tackle the unique challenges they face. (see www.symphonybros.com;  blog: http://symphonybros.wordpress.com; twitter: http://twitter.com/symphonybros;  facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Symphony-Bros-LLC/110406145676610)

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